If you were to ask the editor of one of our quality newspapers whether he had thought about how to adapt to the internet, he would look at you as if you had been locked in a basement for 20 years, and then tell you that he thinks of little else. And it would be true, sort of. The Kindle, the iPad, new business models for the website: that’s where the clever ideas are. But the printed paper is also affected by the web, and in that realm the conventional wisdom is curiously out of date. You can learn more about the unique advantages of print in the age of the internet from one page of a 1950s newspaper than from a whole edition of one of today’s broadsheets.
As it happens, I have a specific page in mind: page six of the Times for 2 June 1953. Before we look at it, however, we need to look at that conventional wisdom, and how it came to be.
For the past 60 years or so, Britain’s newspapers have co-evolved with television, just as dogs, over thousands of years, have co-evolved with humans. They have learned to specialise in things that television finds difficult, and to use its strengths to their benefit. In the case of broadsheets, that means a relentless pursuit of depth and analysis. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a paper can give you tens of thousands, on the short list of topics that last night’s TV news trained you to care about. And partisan columnists find it much easier to be incisive than highly regulated newscasters.
Depth and analysis are still the watchwords even among the most self–consciously tech-savvy sections of the quality press. The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger has talked in the past about putting out a printed version of Newsnight; he still offers regular lectures about abandoning ‘commodity news’. Newspaper accountants are fond of these nostrums, too, because they promise a future with fewer journalists producing fewer, longer stories.
But put a made-for-TV broadsheet up against the internet, and it is apt to look slow, clumsy and silly. The web offers depth without limit and partisanship without restraint. If you really want to know about some event — if you could read tens of thousands of words on it — you will have done so online before it ever reaches a morning paper. If you have a prejudice in need of flattery, blogs can target it far more precisely than a paper that must attempt to appeal to hundreds of thousands of readers.
So are there still things newsprint can do that its electronic rivals can’t? I’d say yes. A newspaper can present a finite selection of stories, giving its readers the assurance that they are properly briefed, even on topics for which they would not have thought to search. And it can present these stories on a single plane for browsing, with subtleties of design and placement that let readers skim the news easily, proportioning their attention to a well-modulated sense of each story’s importance. To see these advantages exploited most ruthlessly, you need to look past the house-trained papers of today and examine their wolfish predecessors. Hence that old copy of the Times.
Now, the Times of the 1950s seemed anachronistic even in its own day. Its readership was so small and so socially interconnected that the front page served as a social networking platform: it was filled with status updates in the form of classified advertisements. The most important conventional news appeared not on the front but on a middle page opposite the leading articles. I don’t suggest going back to this arrangement, but it had consequences we could learn from. Being deep inside the paper, the main news page was arranged to assist the reader, rather than to seduce the potential purchaser. Today’s broadsheets increasingly circulate by subscription, but they still plan their main news page as a sales poster. Being inside the paper also made the main news page less subject to flashy but confusing redesigns. In 1953 the Times had been using the same set of exquisitely customised fonts in refinements of the same style for 21 years. It knew what it was doing down to the last paragraph indent, and its readers knew, too.
On 2 June 1953, page six was the main news page, and it carried one of the great scoops of the 20th century. The Times was the only paper to have a man with the Everest expedition. He had sent a coded telegram. The peak was conquered. That news accounts for two of seven columns, and a three-column picture. June 2 also happened to be coronation day: that likewise merits two columns, split into seven informatively headed brief sections.
In the three columns between there are a further 11 stories, in sizes varying from a third of a column (the US reorganising its foreign aid budget) to 13 words (opening of a trade fair in Barcelona). You can take in at a glance a range of information that would require you to leaf halfway through a modern news section. And the page doesn’t only give you the news. It ranks it, with precision. News pages in today’s Times have two or maybe three levels of headline: this has seven styles, elegantly matched and delicately weighted. All but the very smallest stories have both a headline and a concise subheadline, allowing for easy skimming.
Plenty of people, I should admit, are still trying to sell bite-sized news for relatively upmarket readers. Metro has made millions out of it. The Independent’s I is trying to do the same. All the quality papers offer pages of news in brief. But these modern news-in-brief merchants have responded to the web by borrowing its stripped-down, automated design aesthetic. The short stories come in grids, each one the same length and with a headline of the same weight. Sometimes, for extra effect, they are arranged around a map. It looks pretty and is relatively straightforward to produce. But it conveys far less information through design than a more fussy-looking 1950s news page.
To suggest a different way of designing printed newspapers may of course be foolish in itself — like suggesting a better way to upholster stagecoaches, or a better wick for gas-lamps. Life moves on. But while people continue to buy printed newspapers — and something like eight million still do — thinking hard about what now marks them out from other media seems unlikely to make things worse.
Peter Robins is The Spectator’s production editor. He’s trying to research a history of Fleet Street in newspaper closures.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012